To read Joyce's column on Stephen Burt and Michael Schaaf at the PSA Panel on Criticism

To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce’s OBSERVATIONS

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A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000

Poetry

A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion
penObservations: A Column by Joyce Wilson


Stephen Burt, a Critic Who Writes Poetry or a New Poet?


Popular Music by Stephen Burt. Winner of the 1999 Colorado Prize for Poetry. Center for Literary Publishing, University Press of Colorado, 1999. $14.95 ISBN 0870815555 (paper).

***** Why has Stephen Burt, who made such an auspicious beginning as an undergraduate at Harvard with his academic scholarship, diverted his critical efforts by publishing a book of poems? This first book of poetry Popular Music describes coming of age, the states of boyhood and girlhood, travelling, high art, and popular culture in poems that are funny, confusing, and engaging all at once. While they address subjects of autobiography more intensely than criticism would, many of the poems also deal with theoretical issues, such as the relationship between poet, critic, reader, and poem. Some of the poems explore what seems to be an underlying goal of the book, in which the narrator makes a shift from that of observer to observed.
***** One might think that the critic as observer enjoys the advantage of being one step removed from the subject, yet this distance becomes problematic when the combined recognizable perspectives don't support a consistent view. One poem presents a scene of conventional domestic life—with gardens and interiors, infants and mothers—infused with a sense of underlying disorder. Yet the figurative language does not convey dread but confusion. The uneasiness is shattered by a visit from the ghost of Sylvia Plath, who rejects the scene:
And the ghost of Plath,
Whom I had hated for so long,

Holds her cool scissors
Up to my ear, insisting
That I should whisper back her anger, taunt
Them with a shame-
Ful song, beginning
Now: this isn't what I'll ever want.
(“Herziliyya”)
It is not unusual for a poet to address another poet in verse. But one senses that the persona being taunted, with scissors up to “his” ear, is not that of a poet but a critic on trial who has been led into volatile territory and feels the pressure to explain the anger of a vengeful muse. He must look beyond the whole of the poetic experience to its parts, his gender and her gender for example, to execute his work responsibly and to be freed from her other-worldly wrath.
***** Repeatedly, Burt's poems address the theme of responsibility. In one of the many poems about traveling, the narrator looks down from the cabin of an airplane and experiences pangs of indebtedness, asking himself,
“How could you ever sort out or pay back what you owe
In that white coin, language, which melts as you start to speak?”
(“Over Nevada”)
The poem “Glass” examines the disjunction between form and content as an aspect of personal inadequacy. The narration begins describing the limitations of always providing form, a useful instrument without agency: “Having been measurement/ and medium, and never the thing meant.” It ends with an image of vulnerability—“My friends/ confide in me, knowing I have no hands.” Another poem, “After the Death of Jaime Gil de Biedma” reads like an open letter to the deceased. It is an elegy to the Spanish poet, based on his poem of the same title, that follows closely with the original as if making a translation of the work. As he examines the nature of his relationship with his mentor, Burt's narrator becomes stricken with the idea of his own influence as reader and interpreter upon the art of this poet, who taught him so much out of his personal knowledge and suffering, and who has left him floundering with a case of survivor guilt.
***** Gil de Biedma is a telling model for Burt to imitate. In the introduction to his collection Longing (City Lights, 1991), he describes the anxiety he experienced writing under the influence of the internal dictator, his ego, the first person “I,” whom he personifies as a Big Brother figure. He explains: “I thought I wanted to be a poet but basically I wanted to be the poem.” To him, the successful poem achieves a state of pure Being, freed from the influence of the overbearing ego, while the poet, like the critic, must continue to wrestle with his subject. In Burt's case, the poems that address gender find the greatest degree of freedom when they put aside their worries about indebtedness and responsibility and make the shift from side-lines to center stage. The opening poem, one of the strongest in the collection, looks at girlhood as a state of panic in the middle of the night:
I wake in the dark. My face is a stunned
Cathode-ray tube, a pomegranate
Unharmed. If I were a girl, I would be a girl.
I hate my career, I want to go home
To Avonlea.
“Persephone (Unplugged)”
This poem, more than all the others in the collection, with its literary allusions and evocation of a full persona, establishes a sense of being rather than observing, creating rather than analyzing. It fulfills Burt's parallel goal, stated in another poem, of wanting to be someone else. This wish is his cry from the heart.
***** The strength of these poems is not in their unique choice of metaphor—or metonymy or symbol—but in their ability to question. Burt's poetic efforts salute the literary field as a place to invent and experiment, a position guaranteed to contribute to the penetration of his criticism. Through his poetry, he is able to elude the dictates of logic and work out ideas. He can pose questions about what constitutes gender identity, a meaningful poetic life, a long friendship as he juggles seemingly unrelated details and assumes the persona of his subject. These poems demonstrate his ambition to understand himself and his field, as each must be perceived through new eyes.

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***** Joyce Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Poetry Porch and a regular contributor to The Drunken Boat.